To study the effect of nerve growth factor (NGF) on neuronal survival, growth, and differentiation, cultures of dissociated neonatal rat sympathetic neurons virtually free of other cell types were maintained for 3-4 wk. In the absence of NGF, the neurons did not survive for more than a day. Increased levels of NGF increased neuronal survival and growth (total protein and total lipid phosphate); saturation occurred at 0.5 microgram/ml 7S NGF. Neuronal differentiation examined by measuring catecholamine (CA) production from tyrosine also depended on the level of NGF in the culture medium. As the NGF concentration was raised, CA production per neuron, per nanogram protein, or per picomole lipid phosphate increased until saturation was achieved between 1 and 5 microgram/ml 7S NGF. Thus, NGF induces neuronal survival, growth, and differentiation of CA production in a dose-dependent fashion. Neuronal growth and differentiation were quantitatively compared in the presence of the high and low molecular weight forms of NGF; no significant functional differences were found.

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